Thursday, March 20, 2014

#650 - Mike Epstein

And the penultimate action shot belongs to .... Mike Epstein on his last Topps card swinging away at Yankee Stadium and apparently connecting since it looks like Thurman Munson’s glove is empty. Mike got back to California the hard way – through the Texas Rangers – and by the time this card came out was pretty much done emotionally with his first go in baseball. According to the book “Seasons in Hell” Mike was admittedly mailing it in and was more interested in getting his pilot’s license than in anything going on on the field. Looking at this photo, though, he still seemed to have the ability to uncork a huge swing every now and then. This shot was taken in either early June or September since those were the only two times since Epstein’s acquisition he played in NY for California and I believe this shot is from the same game as the one of Vada Pinson. Mike got with the Angels via a May trade that moved him, Rick Stelmaszek, and Rich Hand for Jim Spencer and Lloyd Allen. That was after the trade that got him out of Oakland initially, when he was sent to Texas rather cheaply for reliever Horacio Pina. That trade was initiated by one of two events, depending on the source: Mike’s o-fer performance in the ’72 Series (A’s owner Charlie O); or Mike’s laying out of Reggie Jackson in the locker room (Epstein). Either way it led to a pretty fast decline for Mike who would go from getting some MVP votes for his ’72 work to being out of the game less tan two years later. But he wouldn’t stay away for too long...

Mike Epstein was a big kid born in the Bronx, NYC. Sometime after he was bar mitzvahed his family relocated to the west coast and Mike went to high school in LA where he was all-area as both a fullback and a first baseman. He then went to Berkeley where he continued to play both sports and after hitting .375 his sophomore year was wooed by the Dodgers via Tommy Lasorda but remained in school at his dad’s insistence. In ’64 he upped his average to nearly .400, made All-American, and was selected to the first ever US Olympic baseball team. He then signed with the Orioles, put in some IL time, and returned to Berkeley to finish his studies. In ’65 he broke in with a bang, putting up a .338/30/109 line in A ball while playing first. In ’66 he jumped to Triple A where his line of .302/29/102 earned him TSN’s Minor League Player of the Year and a brief end of season look in Baltimore. Around then Boog Powell had settled in at first base so Baltimore wanted to turn Mike into an outfielder, which would require more time in the minors. Mike balked and early in June of the ’67 season after barely playing he was sent to DC for pitcher Pete Richert.  He immediately took over first but he was putting up too many K’s and not enough power so by the end of the season he was splitting starts with Dick Nen. After winter ball and a good spring training Mike was back in as the regular guy in ’68 but by mid-May his average was still below .100 so he returned to Triple A for some hitting work where he put up a .400/5/13 line in just eleven games. He was back up top in June and hit .276 with twelve homers and 31 RBI’s the rest of the way.

In ’69 Washington named a new manager in Ted Williams and Epstein would become on of Ted’s star pupils. Pretty much all of Mike’s offensive numbers would rise significantly and that season he sported a .414 OBA as the Nats put up their first winning season in this rendition. Expansion probably contributed to those numbers, though, and the next year Mike fell back to earth a bit. The next year Oakland was looking for a power guy at first and Mike went to the A’s with reliever Darold Knowles for catcher Frank Fernandez, first baseman Don Mincher, and reliever Paul Lindblad that May. He got the lion’s share of work at first the rest of the way, continued to have pretty good OBA numbers, and got his first post-season action. Then in ’72 he led Oakland in homers and got his Series win though he didn’t have such a great time offensively. That November he was sent to Texas and he then finished things early in the ’74 season with California. For his career Mike hit .244 with 130 homers, 380 RBI’s, and a .358 OBA. In the post-season he hit .108 with a homer in his 13 games and in just over two minor league seasons he hit .325 with 64 homers and 224 RBI’s.

As mentioned above, Epstein had sort of moved away emotionally from baseball by the time he retired. He would relocate to Colorado where he had his own ranch and also his own precious metals company for a few years. But the baseball bug never left him entirely. By the early Nineties he was in the San Diego area and coaching, first for a big deal amateur team and then in the Milwaukee system (’93, when he also went 4-7 as an interim manager), for some independent teams (’96-’99), and in the San Diego system (2000). He also coached at San Diego High School in ’95. Since about ’94 he has also run his own hitting school which by now has a sort of national network and has developed a system called rotational hitting. Both Mike and his son are busily involved in the school and if that photo on the site is recent Mike looks damn good.

This is a good swan song card and has some serious star bullets. Per the cartoon, Mike was no Ron Hunt, but every season from ’68 to ’72 he was in the top four in the AL for HBP. After coming across the “Seasons in Hell” book for the Joe Lovitto post I had to hunt it down. It’s a hilarious book with lots of behind the scenes dope of the Rangers from ’73 to ’75. Though Epstein was barely there at the time, he gets lots of mention, especially in a bit in which he pissed off some former teammates after being traded to California by indicating none of them was incentivized to win. Texas then won its next three games against California to kick off its only real winning streak that year.

Another hook-up that takes us through the AL:

1. Epstein and Bernie Allen ’67 to ’71 Senators;
2. Allen and Roy White ’72 to ’73 Yankees;
3. White and Fernando Gonzolez ’74 Yankees.

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